Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fisking Lilith Saintcrow and the Hachette/Amazon Situation

People often disagree with my posts, and some do it in the comments section.

This promotes healthy debate and discourse. As long as people stay civil with each other, they can post whatever they like, including insulting me. I've only had to kick a few people out over the years, after giving them multiple chances to cool off.

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is the ability for people to engage with different viewpoints and test each others' arguments.

I don't know Lilith Saintcrow. She's a writer with Hachette, and has just blogged about this situation. She's wrong, which is fine. Normally that wouldn't irk me. But in her comments section, she's disemvoweling people who disagree with her (it's a cute form of censuring where all the vowels are removed from the comment).

So now I'm going to bring the debate here, to A Newbie's Guide, by explaining in detail how wrong Lili Saintcrow is. Normally I don't take my peers to task like this, but I really dislike the way Lili is handling dissenters on her blog. She's deliberately obstructing what could have been a healthy debate.

No offense intended, Lili. I'm sure you're a wonderful person and a wonderful writer. And I do understand how you are frustrated at this situation. Your sales are suffering, and it is beyond your control, so naturally you want to place blame and voice your discontent.

But I believe you aren't looking at the big picture, and cutting off comments on your blog isn't how you, or anyone following you, can use this situation as a learning experience.

Lili's post is entitled How "Amazon" Means "Less Books For You."

Lili: Dear Readers, let me tell you about my editor.

I have been with my editor at Orbit–Devi Pillai, who Anya Devi in the Kismet books was loosely based on–for over a decade now. She shepherded me through the Valentine series, consoled me through the end of Heaven’s Spite, took a chance on the Damnation Affair, and loved a certain hedgewitch Queen so much she kept asking about it for years until she could finally buy it. She remains an editor I trust implicitly. When she sticks to her guns and insists, I generally rethink my position and trust she’s right, and (far less often, because I rarely dig my heels in unless it’s Important) vice versa. She understands my working style, leaves me the freedom I need while ensuring I get the support I often don’t know I need to turn in my best work.

Joe sez: Ok, we get it. You and your editor have a wonderful bramance going on (Get it? It's the opposite of bromance with bra = female.)

I'm sure she's excellent. She'd better be, because she and Hachette are getting 75% of net ebook royalties, and you--the one who wrote the books--only get 25%.

Lili: Not only that, but she advocates for me tirelessly in editorial and marketing meetings. She fights for my books, she fights to bring my books to you. She is everything an editor should be, and it’s largely because of her faith in me that I can write full-time and pay my mortgage.

Joe sez: Because when we're at the mercy of a giant, soul-sucking organization like Hachette (full disclosure, they published my book Afraid), we need an insider to fight for our books, or else they won't do well.

That seems... terrible.

Lili: She works for Orbit. Orbit is a part of Hachette. Amazon, the behemoth that undercut its competitors and has become not the only, but the biggest game in town, wants more money out of Hachette. So, Amazon has removed the preorder buttons on Hachette books. Including the last Bannon & Clare book, The Ripper Affair.

Joe sez: Amazon, the behemoth that turned online booksales into a multibillion dollar company, and invented the Kindle which kickstarted the ebook revolution.

Amazon, which continuously innovates and strives to please customers, and counts authors who publish via Amazon among its customers.

Amazon, which is not a monopoly, it's just very good at what it does, as opposed to Hachette, which the Department of Justice brought a successful collusion suit against for fixing ebook prices and keeping them artificially high. I believe Hachette did this to protect their paper distribution cartel by forcing Amazon to accept the Agency Model, which took away Amazon's ability to price low and took money directly out of their authors' pockets.

Amazon, which last I checked was a US company engaged in the nefarious act of capitalism.

Amazon, which can decide to sell whatever it wants to, just like Hachette can publish whomever it wants to.

Lili: Preorders are largely how publishers forecast how well a certain book will do. Those forecasts create numbers that are used when, for example, Devi makes the case to buy another series from me while I’m finishing up writing the current one. It’s not fair, but it’s the only metric the publishers have in some cases, for all sorts of reasons–frex, it can take over six months for the contracts department to get all situated. (Contracts people are by their nature picky and detail-oriented, and that’s fine, it’s just frustrating sometimes.)

Joe sez: I've blogged before about author Stockholm Syndrome. Making excuses for the bad behavior of your publisher.

Now the reverse might also be applied, that I'm making excuses for Amazon. I'm not. When Amazon behaves badly, I call them on it. Insofar as I'm aware, Amazon is not behaving badly in this case.

But I don't know for sure. The only two parties that know are Hachette and Amazon, and neither is talking. So isn't it a bit presumptuous to point fingers when we don't know what's going on?

Lili: All of this is backstory (hello, exposition!) to what I am about to tell you.

The full, nasty effect of Amazon removing buy buttons (like they did when squeezing Macmillan for more cash a few years ago) and removing the ability to preorder a publisher’s upcoming books doesn’t hit the publisher.

Joe sez: You mean when Amazon removed Macmillan's buy buttons because Macmillan was trying to force them to accept higher ebook prices? That's revisionist history, Lili.

Lili: Sure, the publisher is who Amazon can blackmail most directly–Amazon’s a huge distributor, and if they decide not to distribute, that’s lost revenue, since ease of buying is a component of consumer activity.

Joe sez: People mistake "blackmail" with "extortion" all the time. For the record, Amazon isn't blackmailing anyone, or extorting money from anyone. As far as any of us knows, they are involved in a negotiation with Hachette.

The point of negotiations is to reach an agreement both parties can accept.

It is the nature of negotiations that each party tries to get as good a deal as possible. This isn't extortion (or blackmail). This is business.

Amazon has no obligation to carry any Hachette book ever again. It is allowed to decide what it sells in its store, and for how much.

This disagreement with Hachette has apparently been going on for many months. And because Amazon has the power in this particular negotiation (Hachette needs Amazon more than Amazon needs Hachette) they are doing what anyone would do; showing that power.

It's sort of like, Lili, when you renewed your contract with Hachette and asked for a higher royalty rate and the removal of the non-compete clause, and they laughed at you. They had the power, so you were stuck with their shitty contract terms.

I hired a lawyer and got my rights back from Hachette. I recommend you do the same.

Lili: (Translation: every time you make a consumer go somewhere else, they are fractionally less willing to buy the damn item that’s costing them time and headache.) There’s also lost revenue from people who buy only through Amazon (they have their reasons, natch) and that means a publisher can’t afford to take a chance on certain authors. The publisher takes the visible hit, but the ripples spread out and hit midlist authors, or debut authors. And while I am not the latter, I am most certainly the former.

Joe sez: So instead of you getting a bunch of Hachette authors together and petitioning Michael Pietsch, the CEO, to just sign the fucking agreement, you're angry with Amazon?

Interesting. And Stockholmy.

Lili: In other words, Amazon’s behavior right now is impacting my ability to sell more books to Orbit, since when preorder numbers take this kind of hit it’s harder for Devi to fight for me in acquisition meetings.

Joe sez: So Hachette's broken publishing system--where the only books that do well are those personally championed by heroic editors--is in jeopardy because Hachette would rather lose sales right now than lose the negotiation. And you still blame Amazon for this? Is that fair? Is that logical?

Lili: The numbers for B&C were already not good enough for me to do the “B&C travel to different countries” books we were all looking forward to.

Joe sez: Here's a secret: when you self-publish, you can write the books you want. And you make 70% ebook royalties on Amazon, and you'll be able to keep your "buy button" and there won't be any shipping delays. As much as you may believe your editor is the reason you can pay your mortgage, methinks it's probably because you write good books that fans enjoy. If you need a good editor, you can hire a freelancer.

Just sayin'.

Lili: Amazon’s blackmail of my publisher makes it harder for my editor to justify taking a chance on me next time I’m up for a contract with them. (It isn’t fair, but it’s a business decision, and I understand as much.) This impacts my ability to write full-time, to continue producing those stories you love (or love to hate) at my accustomed rate. Because I have to pay my mortgage and feed my kids, and if this won’t do it, I will have to spend my time doing something else that will.

Joe sez: No one owes you a living, Lili. No one owes any writer a living. That we can make any money at all from our words is incredibly fortunate.

I know it feels bad to have your preorder button removed, but no one is entitled to have their books for sale on Amazon. It's Amazon's choice. They have no legal, or moral, duty to sell anything they don't want to sell. Practically every independent bookstore in the US won't carry my titles because I'm outspoken about self-publishing. They can do that, and I don't whine about it. (In fact, I support indie bookstores and tried to help them.)

That said, perhaps you should stop letting legacy publishers screw up your career. When I left Hachette, my income went up 10x.

Lili: Amazon is obeying the natural behaviour of corporations. Corporations are not people, but once they reach a certain size they start behaving like any greedy organism. They metastasize. The effect of this is passed down through the ecosystem to yours truly–and also to you.

Joe sez: Surely you see this same "greedy organism" argument can be applied to Hachette, right?

And I caution you against complaining directly to your fans. It doesn't come off well.

Allow me to suggest how you could have written your blog post:

To my fans: currently my publisher, Hachette, is in negotiations with Amazon, and Amazon has removed the preorder buttons to my latest book. But you can still preorder the book here (insert links). Hopefully things will be worked out soon, and I apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your continued support. To show my thanks, I'll email a free short story tie-in to everyone who preorders the novel.

You can get more fans, and traffic, if you remain impartial and stiff upper-lipped. And then you won't have any detractors in the comments that you feel the need to disemvowel (honestly, that was a silly move, and it's the reason I'm blogging about you right now.)

Lili: Less time for me to write those stories means less Lili books for you to read. It means less books from other authors you may like or love, as well. If Hachette has to cave and agree to Amazon’s predatory terms, I will feel that directly, because that money will come out of budgets that take a chance on me, the midlist author.

Joe sez: Because Hachette certainly won't cut corporate salaries or benefits, move their headquarters someplace cheaper than Manhattan, stop blowing big money at BEA and other self-grandizing venues, or eliminate and/or reduce any of the many other needless expenses they have.

The author will suffer before they give up expensing their lunches. Even though Hachette is making a ton of money because of their high ebook cut.

Lili: As Elizabeth Bear said this morning, Amazon is hoping customers will turn on the publishers and force them to do Amazon’s bidding. If you’re fine with that, and with the effects I’ve described above, okay. I naturally don’t agree with you, but okay. I have Amazon links, affiliate and otherwise, on this very site for your convenience, not mine.

Joe sez: Certainly you see a bit of hypocrisy there, don't you? Condemning Amazon but still linking to them? Are you sure those links are for the fans' convenience, and not because you sell a lot of books on Amazon?

Lili: If you’re not fine with Amazon’s behavior, you can preorder The Ripper Affair (and order other books of mine) through Barnes & Noble, Powell’s, or Indiebound. You can even preorder and order signed copies through Cover to Cover Books with a simple stock inquiry, they ship worldwide. You can preorder for other authors you like, too, at Barnes & Noble, at Indiebound, and at C2C though they may not be signed if they’re not mine–you get the idea.

Joe sez: This is called "burying the lede". Your post could have been this, with zero personal commentary, and you'd have been considered heroic.

Lili: Hachette has been keeping its authors apprised of developments in this situation. They’re doing their best to take care of us, because we are, after all, their bread and butter. Hachette isn’t the bad guy here. (I should hope that my regular Readers know that I’d tell you if they were, srsly, mortgage be damned.) Please think about buying somewhere other than Amazon, even if it is a little inconvenient.

Joe sez: They're doing your best to take care of you and keeping you apraised? Really? Did you get these emails from Pietsch?

May 9, 2014

Dear Hachette Book Group author,

There are stories in the press today about Hachette Book Group’s negotiations with Amazon.  We have released the following statement to the media:

“It is our normal policy not to comment on negotiations underway with any retailer.

However, we have been asked legitimate questions about why many of our books are at present marked out of stock with relatively long estimated shipping times on the Amazon website, in contrast to immediate availability on other websites and in stores.

We are satisfying all Amazon’s orders promptly, and notifying them constantly of forthcoming publicity events and of out-of-stock situations on their website.  Amazon is holding minimal stock and restocking some of HBG's books slowly, causing “available 2-4 weeks” messages, for reasons of their own.

We are grateful for the patience of authors and all Amazon readers as we work to reach an agreement and to encourage Amazon to be back to offering Hachette Book Group’s books within normal shipment times.” 

HBG has a long history of successful partnership with Amazon, and we are counting on the goodwill we have established over many years as we try to resolve this impasse.  I will keep you informed of any major developments in our discussions.  In the meantime, if you have questions please let me know.

Michael

and

May 23, 2014

Dear Author,

I am sorry to tell you that Amazon has now taken preorder capabilities away from Hachette Book Group publications.  Forthcoming books now bear a notice "currently unavailable" and a note inviting customers to ask for an email when it becomes available.  There is no preorder button, and some not-yet-published books lack a Kindle page entirely.  

Please know that we are doing everything in our power to find a solution to this difficult situation, one that best serves our authors and their work, and that preserves our ability to survive and thrive as a strong and author-centric publishing company.

As we work through this challenging period, it is extremely encouraging to see our retail partners – thousands of chain, online and independent bookstores – showing their support for HBG and our authors. The June 1 New York Times bestseller list is wonderful evidence of this: Books published by HBG include the #1 Hardcover Fiction bestseller (and 4 of the top 10 in that category), the #1 book on the Advice/How-To list, 2 of the top 10 Non-Fiction titles, and many trade paperback, mass market paperback, and ebook bestsellers.  

I know this is not a comfortable situation for most of you, and I appreciate your support and the many messages I’ve received. 

I'll keep you updated with important developments, but in the meantime, please don't hesitate to contact me with questions. 

Yours,
Michael  

Michael Pietsch
CEO
Hachette Book Group

Joe sez: Lili, where in those emails is Hachette keeping you appraised of developments? They're simply saying what you already know: shipping is delayed, and the preorder buttons are gone. Pietsch isn't saying why Amazon is doing this, even though he knows why. He's not saying what he intends to do to fix the situation. He's not stating HGB's position other than refusing not to comment.

He certainly hasn't "kept you informed of any major developments in our discussions." He hasn't shared a single development, major or otherwise, other than to confirm what is happening, and brag that HBG still has some bestsellers (none of which are yours). He didn't even say anything to HBG authors about this until 21 days ago, when it has apparently been going on since November of 2013.

If Amazon is restocking HBG's books slowly it isn't for "reasons of their own." I'd bet good money Pietsch knows those reasons, and he isn't sharing with the many concerned parties who have apparently contacted him.

If Pietsch did care, maybe he could contact all of his authors, explain Amazon's terms, and have them vote on whether they are acceptable or not. Then he could give all of his authors 70% ebook royalties. Then he could use the power of his mind to create a magical unicorn to end world hunger.

I'm not holding my breath.

Lili: In the end, dear Reader, it’s all up to you.

‘Nuff said.

Joe sez: No, it isn't up to the reader. It's up to you, the author.

Your books are suffering because your publisher owns your rights. If you owned your own rights there wouldn't be a problem. You could hire your own editor, write the books you want to, make better royalties, and never be at the mercy of another one-sided, unconscionable publishing contract or bad decision.

You don't need Hachette. Even though they tried to convince the world and themselves of their relevance. They aren't relevant. The author and the reader are the two essential parties. Everyone else is a middleman.

I hope you seriously consider what I've said here, and rethink your positions. I don't believe you should be defending your publisher in this situation, or complaining to your fans, or messing with your comments. I also think you're missing the opportunity to write the books you want to write--the B&C travel to different countries books--because you're stuck in a legacy contract.

You're welcome to respond here, Lili. Say whatever you like.

I'll even let you keep your vowels.

Addendum:

The inimitable Bob Mayer also has some smart things to say on this issue. Check it out.